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14 March 2013

Does the Pope Age in the Woods?

In case you hadn't heard, there's a new pope. Lots of first with this one. First Jesuit. First from the Global South. (See my previous posts on this here and here.) First to take the name Frank. Like all of the contenders (and virtually everyone eligible as well), though, he's theologically conservative. He is vociferous, however, in his support of the poor, which is consistent with his membership in the Society of Jesus (a/k/a the Jesuits). The cardinals seem to have been rather two-faced with this election, though. He's from the South--but he's white. He's Jesuit--but he's conservative. He's different--but he's not. It's surprisingly politic. There is something else telling here, though.

Nate Silver had an interesting post over at FiveThirtyEight yesterday about the age of the popes. He notes that
Cardinal Bergoglio, 76, is probably the ninth oldest of the 266 popes at the time of his election....
He goes on to write,
...[T]he cardinal electors might have seen Francis’ age as an asset...because the cardinals are also quite old: 72 on average. ...If Francis serves for 5 to 10 years, a considerable number of the cardinals will have another opportunity to steer the course of the church by voting again on a pope, something that would have been much less likely had they selected a candidate in his 50s or 60s.
Interesting food for thought. Given the monarchical nature of the papacy, the College of Cardinals are very limited in the power that they can exert. Essentially, they elect the Pope and then get out of the way. (It'd be interesting to see an analysis of the cardinals over time, particularly what the average number of papal conclaves over a career has been and how that has changed.) Imagine the U.S. Senate electing the president for a lifetime appointment and not getting to pass any laws. It seems that this system no longer serves the best interests of the Church in several ways (which I won't get into here). The Church, though, is inherently conservative in its design, favoring tradition over cultural accommodation. Because they have no other way to control the direction of the Church, the cardinals keep the popes on a short leash by increasingly making sure that the popes tenures will be short because of their advanced age. Moreover, old popes, like old people in general, are likely to behave rather conservatively. While there is little motivation for those in power in the Church to make these changes, the Church could make itself much more vibrant and relevant by getting some young(er) blood in the papacy, but that would necessitate democratizing power both among the clerical hierarchy and between the clergy and the laity.

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